Comment: Sarajevo's agony: Britain's shame

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WE are well into the eleventh hour in Sarajevo and the great powers are still talking. As Western leaders exchange pious utterances and debate precisely who might command the air strikes, the Serbs continue to tighten their grip on the desperate city.

Perhaps John Major and Douglas Hurd hope by their talk to drown out the city's agony. Perhaps they will still be talking when the lines of ethnic partition are drawn between husband and wife, between parent and child, between former friends and neighbours. As the shells fall on Sarajevo, Mr Hurd plans his holiday.

Failure has followed failure, and Britain and her partners have learned nothing. They tried to keep Yugoslavia together when a break-up was inevitable. They failed to prevent the conflicts between the newly-formed states. They dispatched Lord Carrington, armed with a briefcase and good intentions, to conduct a diplomacy that had no teeth. After nine broken ceasefires, it was obvious that diplomacy in former Yugoslavia without a credible threat of military force means nothing.

Britain enjoys a privileged position in the international community: she is a leading member of Nato, where she holds more commands than Germany or Italy. She is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. With France, she is the chief military power in Europe.

In 1992, Britain held the chairmanship of the EC. It was for Britain to take an initiative. There was fine talk at the London conference in August last year: Mr Hurd threatened war crimes tribunals; Laurence Eagleburger threatened the Serbs with a 'spectacularly bleak future' unless they abandoned their reckless course; the conference condemned ethnic cleansing and demanded respect for frontiers. It backed up its words with a piece of paper. It was hailed as triumph for Mr Major.

Throughout Britain's EC presidency there was only one decisive act: to tighten the regulations governing the admission of Bosnian refugees to this country.

There was more fine talk, too, at the UN. Resolution 770, passed in August 1992, promised to take all measures necessary to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Sarajevo and wherever it was needed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The British contributed troops to the aid convoys but they were left with persuasion as their only weapon. Fighting has since closed the main aid route into Bosnia.

Resolution followed resolution, declaration upon declaration, none worth the paper they are written on without credible military sanctions.

And now the latest farce: the talks in Geneva, at which the Bosnian government is pressed to swallow a cyanide pill while the guns advance on 300,000 hungry and despairing people.

A humanitarian catastrophe on an even greater scale is waiting to follow this political and diplomatic catastrophe. The Serbs still think - and why should they not - that the West is bluffing. At this late hour, there is talk of air strikes against Serb positions around Sarajevo. But air power, particularly in close mountain territory, is a weapon of support for action on the ground. Without credible action on the ground, it does not work: no soldier ever surrendered to an aircraft; no territory was ever recovered by air action alone. It is doubtful that it will work, even in the minimal aim of opening the aid routes to Sarajevo and it carries the risk of retaliation on UN troops already in place.

Action in Bosnia has long been needed. But action requires that a credible UN ground force be allowed to take the necessary military means first to secure the aid routes to Sarajevo and Central Bosnia and then to make the 'safe areas' safe. Without such action, there can be no diplomatic solution. Without it there will soon be nothing to talk about - beyond the disposition of the refugees whom the Government will not admit to Britain.